Thursday, June 5, 2014

Super Mario Bros

(Note: This post originally appeared in the comments of the excellent film criticism website The Dissolve, as part of the commentariat's ongoing Lovefest series, where commentors write a defense of little-loved movies that they still enjoy. I hope you all enjoy!)

Mario is one of the most recognizable pop culture figures of all time. It’s estimated that, as of 2014, more people recognize Mario then Mickey Mouse. He holds a huge amount of cultural cache, and through his name Nintendo owns a media empire, spanning across a huge library of games (of almost every genre), cartoons, comics, toys, and pretty much anything you can think of.

To me, part of the reason why Super Mario Bros: The Movie is so special is the fact that it takes this incredibly well known character and, instead of giving us what we expect from him, presents him in possibly the weirdest way imaginable. Mario may be spread out in almost every possible direction, but I don’t think that anybody expected his titular movie to be set in a dystopian parallel cyberpunk dimension ruled by dinosaurs that look like people. The directors of the film, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, had previously helped create Max Headroom, the trippy late 80s British series set in a similar setting. It shows throughout the film, and Dennis Hopper’s King Koopa even bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Headroom.

But why? Why take a character who, at the time, was most known for running through castles and saving princesses and put him in a setting like that? To answer this, I think we need to ask ourselves two questions. First, what makes a good video game adaptation in the first place? In my mind, there have only been four movies that I consider to be successful adaptations of video games, discounting films like the Pokemon movies that already relied on established characters from their television adaptations. Including Super Mario Bros., they are 1989’s Sweet Home, 2001’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and 2012’s Ace Attorney. What differentiates these three films from Super Mario Bros. is the fact that all of the games they are based on are very much plot heavy. The Ace Attorney games are practically novels, and the Resident Evil series has been noted for it’s heavy cinematic influence since it’s first game. Sweet Home is a bit of an outlier, but director Kiyoshi Kurosawa supervised the production of both the game and the movie, so it has a strong connecting thread between both properties.

That leaves us with Super Mario Bros., the only film that highly deviates from the plot of its original game. Of course, the long-standing rule of adaptations is that they don’t have to follow the exact plotline of the original as long as they capture the spirit of the original. Does Super Mario Bros. do this? Yes, with aplomb! In fact, I would argue that through the changes implanted in the movie, the film captures the spirit of the original Mario games far better then it would if it was set on the background of the traditional kingdoms and dragons setting.

This leads us two our second question: who is Mario, the character? By now he’s so recognizable just by his look that it’s hard to actually see him as a character, instead of just being a brand. But from my point of view, Mario is the anti-superhero, a guy who was bequeathed nothing but through sheer determination wins everything. It’s why he’s so easily adaptable across so many different types of games. Is a portly Italian plumber your idea of a good tennis partner? Probably not, but Mario is still there, trying his best despite the fact that he doesn’t really have anything to show for it. It’s important that the player avatar in the Mario games isn’t some bulky meathead or somebody with an immediate visual appeal. Instead, we need Mario to look like somebody who could be your next door neighbor. That way, when he encounters the strange world of the Mushroom Kingdom, you immediately see that this is a man out of place in this world.

In their own way, the Mario games have always had a surrealist bent to them. Sure, the purpose of the game is strictly traditional (save the damsel from the bad guy), but the journey has always been very strange, with walking mushrooms and flying turtles and flowers that make you shoot fireballs. Mario is the story of a man out of his element, and his attempts to succeed despite his obvious disadvantages using whatever humble means he has at his disposal. It’s important that, initially, he doesn’t even have any sort of starter weapon to defeat his enemies, just his own bulk.

But, of course, this works well for games, a medium where your character is expected to have some sort of defining power for you to justify playing as him. What about film? In film, the person starting from nothing only to work up to their true destiny is, literally, one of the oldest stories in the book. To a film audience, the weird, unexpected quality that erupts from the Mario games is standard practice. If we were to create a Mario film where Mario and Luigi fall into a pipeline and wind up in a storyland, the audience immediately knows what has to happen. Storm the castle, slay the dragon, kiss the princess, and they all lived happily ever after. Now, all of these elements show up in the film too, but by changing it into a cyberpunk future, completely unknown to newbies and seasoned Mario pros alike, the audience is put into a new place, one where anything can happen.

They feel this through the characters too. An oft-repeated punchline of the film is Mario and Luigi reacting to things in the Mushroom Kingdom by saying “I don’t think we’re in Brooklyn,” or “Lady, I’m from Brooklyn,” or a hundred other varieties of this joke that ends in “Brooklyn.” You can attribute this to lazy writing if you like, but I think it just proceeds to underscore how out of place Mario and Luigi are. These are true working class heroes. Their business is failing, they’re late on the rent, and their truck is falling apart.

(An aside: the casting in this movie is pretty tenuous, although I think John Leguzimo, of all people, ends up being a pretty solid Luigi. But it was an absolutely brilliant move to cast the recently departed Bob Hoskins as Mario and Dennis Hopper as Koopa. Hoskins is perfect as Mario because, in a lot of ways, he is the Mario of the movie business. He’s short, heavy, and doesn’t exactly radiate movie star good looks. But he’s a scrapper, and the minute you see Hoskins on screen you’re already rooting for him. And Hopper playing a dinosaur is so great that I’m now retrofitting every Hopper performance as him being a secret dinosaur. Try it at home, kids! It makes Blue Velvet so much more rewarding!)

The plot to the film is at the same time overwhelmingly complicated and stupid. Basically, the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs creates an interdemensional rift that splits the dinosaurs from the mammals. Through convergent evolution, the dinosaurs are put into a form that makes them look just like humans. The kingdom of the dinosaurs, however, has limited space and resources, so King Koopa, the dictator of the Mushroom Kingdom, plans to invade the human Earth with his army of lunkhead Goombas and their de-evolution guns. However, in order to cross the portals, a chip of the initial meteor is required to merge the two worlds. This belongs to Daisy, the former Princess of the kingdom before Koopa overthrew it. Her mother placed her in the human world when she was just a baby, letting her grow up unknowingly as a human.

*turns to the audience* Everybody got that? Good.

Now I know what you’re thinking: that’s really dumb and unnecessary. Bingo! That’s part of the charm of the whole film, and part of the comedy. I’m not making the argument that this is some kind of “so bad it’s good” film, because I totally think that this is a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers, similar to the silly seriousness behind the MIB organization in the film Men in Black (which, coincidentally, one of the writers of the film worked on, though I was told by the people behind that apparently most of his work was discarded by filming). The complication behind the Mushroom Kingdom world is gigantic and ridiculous because it’s necessary to make it as big and bad as possible in order to showcase the main arc of the film: Mario’s change from skeptic to believer.

At the start of the film, Luigi is watching all of this “Strange Phenomena” type shows that talk about silliness like UFOs and stuff like that. Mario shakes it off, saying that it’s nothing but nonsense and that Luigi should just ignore it. By the end of the film (in what a lot of people consider to be a sequel hook but which I think is just the logical endpoint), Mario is willing to suit up and roll out for his next adventure without even hearing what weirdness is in store. Ultimately all of that big stuff going on is just window dressing (and I’m including Luigi’s romance as part of that) in order to showcase Mario’s own internal struggle dealing with letting go of his overly pragmatic worldview and embracing the weird. Through Mario’s attitude change from skeptic in an insane world around him to a man willing to take on the world at the drop of a hat, the film successfully combines the original feeling of confusion and surrealism of the original games and transplants them into the very different medium of film.

Despite this change, though, the film still allows Mario to rely on his working class abilities and outlook even amidst all the craziness. Something that I had forgotten while watching the film, but really love in retrospect, is how Mario’s plumbing abilities play such a prominent role in his fight against Koopa. He fixes pipes! He redirects the heating in Koopa’s building! It plays in nicely with how, even though he may not be a hero in the traditional sense, he still has his own kind of smarts with him, smarts that are based on his down to earth sensibility. It also allows for a nice conflict with Luigi, who’s a head-in-the-cloud dreamer type, and thus is in need of somebody with Mario’s temperament in order to win.

The movie has a patched together quality to it, and based on unhappy comments from the cast in the years after the film’s release, there clearly was a lot of tension with the film’s actual production. But time has been kinder to the film, and looking back on it there is clearly a lot of fun energy that comes through the screen. It’s wacky, absurd, and probably not what anybody involved expected or wanted. But I treasure it and find a lot to love and laugh about within. Especially whenever Hopper is onscreen because seriously now, Dennis Hopper as King Koopa saying lines like “Monkey!” and “Bob-omb!” It’s every girl’s fantasy!

The Mario franchise is pretty stagnant now, with fans knowing what to expect whenever a new game is announced. It has it’s own universe now, filled with hundreds of characters. It even has sub-franchises within the franchise itself, like Mario Kart or Paper Mario. It’s very hard to do anything genuinely surprising with the character at this point. For that reason alone, Super Mario Bros: The Movie is something to be lauded. It’s different, and somewhat dangerous for the cuddly world of Mario. In a world where the franchise model has completely taken over, to the point where a studio is expected to have a house style for films that even share the same genre, it’s downright refreshing to see a film that completely throws everybody’s expectations and sticks to it’s guns, making a distinct and funny Super Mario world of it’s own.

Special thanks to Anthony Pizzo for helping me edit this into something readable. Monkey!


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